Update Thursday October 8, 8:30 p.m. PT: Apple has pulled the Been Choice ad blocker from the App Store as of Thursday night, developer David Yoon told Mashable.
According to Yoon, Apple told the developers that unpacking the data stream necessary to remove ads from certain companies’ apps — Facebook, Google, Pinterest and Yahoo — is a breach of terms.
“No other data from any other app was touched,” Yoon said in an email. “We were explicit in our app and our website, and in our presentations to the press about what we were doing, and for what purpose, with what special safeguards.”
When they asked Apple whether blocking ads in its News app was acceptable, Yoon said the company did not give them a firm reply.
They plan to re-submit an amended version of the app on Friday morning with all of the same features besides ad blocking within apps from those four companies.
According to Apple, “a few” apps were removed because they installed their own root certificates, which raised security concerns. But the company says it’s “working closely with these developers to quickly get their app back.”
“Apple is deeply committed to protecting customer privacy and security,” the company said in a statement Thursday night. “We’ve removed a few apps from the App Store that install root certificates which enable the monitoring of customer network data that can in turn be used to compromise SSL/TLS security solutions. We are working closely with these developers to quickly get their apps back on the App Store, while ensuring customer privacy and security is not at risk.”
Here’s what we knew about the app before
A powerful new ad blocker that hit the hit the App Store last week called Been Choice has invaded that last refuge of commercial promotion: It lets users not only shut out ads in the Safari browser but also within mobile apps like Facebook, Pandora and even Apple’s own News app.
The free app filters users’ Internet traffic through a VPN, or virtual private network, with a tool that searches out patterns typically associated with ads or trackers.
In a business model rich in irony, its creators plan make money by paying users up to $20 per month in PayPal or Amazon vouchers to watch ads and let them collect data on their browsing habits, which the creators can then sell…to advertisers.
The idea, says David Yoon, who developed the app along with Sang Shin, is to give people a specific, transparent choice over whether they want to see ads or be tracked.
“Today everything is compromised — it’s an implicit agreement to allow you to track me if I get free content and see ads,” Yoon said. “We want everything to be explicit.”
The steady surge in the popularity of ad blocking tools has sparked an ethical debate over their use and a game of cat and mouse between firms that block ads and those that publishers enlist to pierce through those blockers.
Developer Marco Arment said last month that guilt over the way his wildly popular app, Crystal, indiscriminately shut out ads drove him to pull it just a day and a half after it was released.
Yoon claims his model doesn’t take business away from publishers as much as it does the “algorithm providers and ad services” middlemen between them and advertisers.
In other words, It’s a Robin Hood scheme wherein people can reclaim some of the value for the data that is collected on them.
“We don’t think of our business model as being at the forefront of the arms race,” said developer David Yoon, who created the app along with Sang Shin. “We don’t think we’re an ad blocker alone — we’re not. We’re just very good at ad blocking to make the choice crystal clear to users.”
Of course, that symbiosis would rely on people actually agreeing to see ads and have their browsing tracked — a somewhat counterintuitive proposal to make to users who want to block ads.
Other VPN-based ad blockers, such as an app called Disconnect, have made it to the App Store, though none are as comprehensive as Been Choice.
Unlike most other ad blockers, Been Choice does not yet offer an option to whitelist certain sites, though Yoon says the feature is on its way.
Up until now, two factors have dovetailed to allow the web’s biggest players — including social apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat — to collect revenue without complications. One is that most ad blockers work only on browsers, while the majority of users visit social sites through apps. The second is that even mobile ad blockers only work on mobile browsers, and can’t reach into the actual apps themselves.
Apple’s decision to greenlight the Been Choice app caught many by surprise. Indeed, many industry observers speculated that Apple introduced content blocking in the first place to better corral ad spending into iOS apps — where Apple’s iAd arm gets a cut of each sale — or its just released News app.
Twitter remains one of the few apps that is off-limits to the ad blocker, since the end-to-end encryption of its data keeps outside parties from sorting ads from content. That suggests that other sites may be able to protect against VPN-based blockers by putting up similar walls.
But Gartner analyst Mike McGuire says the solution could prove just another battleground in an ongoing war.
“Some might also argue encryption of ad-server traffic will work,” McGuire said in an email. “But if you’ve tracked what happened with file-trading and content, you know there’s always somebody somewhere who will figure out how to crack any of these technology solutions.”
It may never even come to that, says eMarketer analyst Bryan Yeager. He said the set-up process may prove too confusing to attract a mass audience beyond a small crowd of tech-savvy adopters.
“It’s very questionable how many users will go through the steps it takes to setup such a function or will be comfortable with using a VPN that ends up collecting a bunch of sensitive personal data in its process,” Yeager said in an email. “It seems like a confusing proposition for most mobile users.”
In fact, Yoon says the team is counting on drawing a small enough audience as to not become a thorn in the side of Facebook or Apple. So far, the app garnered between 4,000 and 5,000 downloads in the first day they publicly promoted it, he says.
“I’m being optimistic — obviously big companies could squash us overnight,” Yoon said. “But I’d like to think this is how history will have to work itself out in this market. And we’re on the right side of it.”